A few months ago I attended my first hackathon. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a hackathon is an event where people who may not know eachother get together and build something for a common cause. They’re pretty popular in the tech community, and typically last a few days at most (though there are exceptions). The hacking is more of a reference to putting together something quickly than of breaking into the mainframe, or at least that’s my understanding of it.
I’d been a bit hesitant to go to this kind of event in the past, mostly because I was still learning the ropes and I was afraid to slow my team down. Imposter syndrome is real.
One day, I see a post in the Pitonneux Slack for something called do_action_mtl. What stood out with this particular event was that they were specifically looking for designers, and since my foundations are in design, I signed up.
The goal of do_action_mtl was to make a WordPress site for non-profits with limited technical knowledge. The non profit that my team was paired with was called Beigne Oui, which is French for Donuts Yes, and also a pun. 🍩
The day started way too early for my liking (Saturdays are made for sleeping in), but there was plenty of free coffee to compensate. We met our teammates, and got started as soon as we were sufficiently awake. We had a full day to make a site powered by WordPress, populate the content, and make sure everything looks polished.
It quickly became clear that when faced with exacting time constraints, being able to think on one’s feet is far more important than technical prowess. As the designer on the team, I had to make sure that everyone had specs early on so as to not waste time. But that proved to be quite challenging.
Usually, when I design something for a client, I like to spend a bit more time up front to really figure out their needs. In this case, Corin from Beigne Oui was there, but we couldn’t afford to let the rest of the team just sit around, so a lot of stuff was improvised on the spot. I found a good compromise was to sit next to her while I worked, that way I’d get instant feedback along the way.
I also typically build WordPress sites from scratch, using Pinegrow. That gives me incredible control of my design compared to doing something based off an existing theme, and I can split my page elements into components that can be used across different projects. This is perfect for the one man show I’m used to when building sites, but it’s not the most well adapted to a hackathon. Not to mention the fact that most people don’t even make WordPress sites like that. In the end we chose a free theme that was being given by one of the event sponsors, and we just tweaked it as needed.
Once we knew which direction we were headed in, things went relatively smoothly. The entire afternoon part of the day was a big rush of making final designs, building them, and polishing. Near the end when my designs were done I got my hands dirty with some of the CSS too, to speed things up a bit.
In the end this is the site we delivered, which is not bad for a chaotic day’s work volunteering!
Would I do it again? Yes!
Would I change anything? Oh yeah!
Had I done something like this before, I would have started designing something basic before the hackathon itself. Nothing major, but I would have gotten all of the info ready and made a few sketches so I could hit the ground running on the day of the event.
I also would have put some more thought into how to divide some of the work. I’m used to building what I design, but not necessarily passing those designs to a developer. Since the hackathon this is actually something that I’m doing a lot more at my job, and I’ve definitely improved.
Hackathons have tons of transformative potential, both for the participants and the causes they support. I’d recommend them to anyone! 😊